This classic Bertolt Brecht song (music by Kurt Weill) is from "Die Dreigroschenoper," which was first performed in Berlin in 1928. The now classic "Mack the Knife" is just one of several popular tunes from the "Threepenny Opera." Knef's version only uses six verses of the eleven in the original "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer." Marc Blitzstein wrote an English adaptation of the "Threepenny Opera" in 1954. Lotte Lenya appeared in that off-Broadway production (and in the original Berlin production). Louis Armstrong made his famous version of "Mack the Knife" in 1955. Bobby Darin's version was a hit in 1959. [Note: Bertolt Brecht's (1898-1956) lyrics are an adaptation of Elisabeth Hauptmann's German translation of John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera."]NOTE: This translation is NOT the Marc Blitzstein English version made popular by Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, and others. It is a literal translation of the original German. - Hildegard Knef - MACKIE MESSERListen to a wonderful recording of the German version, Mackie Messer, below, sung by Lotte Lenya
And the shark, he has teeth
And he wears them in his face
And MacHeath, he has a knife
But the knife you don't see
On a beautiful blue Sunday
Lies a dead man on the Strand*
And a man goes around the corner
Whom they call Mack the Knife
And Schmul Meier is missing
And many a rich man
And his money has Mack the Knife,
On whom they can't pin anything.
Jenny Towler was found
With a knife in her chest
And on the wharf walks Mack the Knife,
Who knows nothing about all this.
And the minor-aged widow,
Whose name everyone knows,
Woke up and was violated
Mack, what was your price?
And some are in the darkness
And the others in the light
But you only see those in the light
Those in the darkness you don't see
But you only see those in the light
Those in the darkness you don't see
*Strand - Name of a street in London, not the German word for "beach."
The character of Macheath, later to become Mack the Knife, first appeared in The Beggar's Opera by John Gay (1685-1732). Gay was a popular English playwright and poet, a friend and collaborator of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope.
The Beggar's Opera is a comic ballad opera, the first of its kind, and took London theatre by storm. Gay uses lower-class criminals to satirize government and upper-class society, an idea that has been used often ever since. A century and a half later, the title characters in Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance note that they are more honest than "many a king on a first-class throne." And in our time, wasn't it Bob Dylan who wrote, "Steal a little and they throw you in jail; steal a lot and they make you a king?"
The main character of The Beggar's Opera is a swashbuckling thief called Macheath. He's a dashing romantic, a gentleman pickpocket, a Robin Hood type. He is polite to the people he robs, avoids violence, and shows impeccable good manners while cheating on his wife. The character is usually understood as partly a satire of Sir Robert Walpole, a leading British politician of the time.
The Beggar's Opera was a success from its first production in 1728, and continued to be performed for many years. It was the first musical play produced in colonial New York; George Washington enjoyed it.
We now skip about 200 years to post-WWI Europe and Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), a distant cousin of this SDSTAFFer. World War I had a revolutionary impact on the arts. The avant-garde movement, in despair after the war, embraced the concept of the anti-hero. Gay's play was revived in England in 1920, and Brecht thought it could be adapted to suit the new era - who's more of an anti-hero than Macheath? So in 1927 he got a German translation and started writing Die Dreigroschenoper, "The Three Penny Opera."
Brecht worked with Kurt Weill (1900-1950) on the adaptation. He did far more than just translate Gay's play, he reworked it to reflect the decadence of the period and of the Weimar republic. Mostly, Brecht wrote or adapted the lyrics, and Weill wrote or adapted the music. Gay's eighteenth-century ballads were replaced with foxtrots and tangos. Only one of Gay's melodies remained in the new work. The play parodies operatic conventions, romantic lyricism and happy endings.
The main character is still Macheath, but Macheath transformed. He's now called Mackie Messer, AKA Mack the Knife. ("Messer" is German for knife.) Where Gay's Macheath was a gentleman thief, Brecht's Mackie is an out-and-out gangster. He's no longer the Robin Hood type, he's an underworld cutthroat, the head of a band of street robbers and muggers. He describes his activities as "business" and himself as a "businessman." Still, the character does manage to arouse some sympathy from the audience.
So, we finally get to your song, the "Ballad of Mack the Knife" (Die Moritat von Mackie Messer) from The Three Penny Opera. The song was a last-minute addition to appease the vanity of tenor Harald Paulson, who played Macheath. However, it was performed by the ballad singer, to introduce the character. The essence of the song is: "Oh, look who's coming onstage, it's Mack the Knife - a thief, murderer, arsonist, and rapist." (If these last two startle you, be patient for a couple paragraphs.)
The Brecht-Weill version premiered in Germany in 1928 and was an instant hit. Within a year, it was being performed throughout Europe, from France to Russia. Between 1928 and 1933 it was translated into 18 languages and had over 10,000 performances.
In 1933, The Three Penny Opera was first translated into English and brought to New York by Gifford Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky. There have been at least eight English translations over the years. In the 1950s, Marc Blitzstein wrote an adaptation, cleaning up "Mack the Knife" and dropping the last two stanzas about arson and rape. At the revival in New York using the Blitzstein translation, Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill's widow, made her comeback - she had a role in the original 1928 Berlin production.
Blitzstein's sanitized adaptation is the best known version of the song in the English-speaking world, and undoubtedly the one you've heard. Louis Armstrong popularized it worldwide in 1955 with an amazing jazz beat. Bobby Darin's 1958 recording was #1 on the Billboard charts for many weeks and won a Grammy as best song. It's been sung as ballad, jazz, and rock by many of the greats, including Ella Fitzgerald and Rosemary Clooney.
In the 1970s, Joseph Papp commissioned Ralph Manheim and John Willett to do an adaptation/translation that would be "more faithful" to Brecht. So, if you were surprised at the notion of arson and rape, here's Willett's translation of the last two stanzas, omitted from the Blitzstein version:
And the ghastly fire in Soho,
Seven children at a go-
In the crowd stands Mack the knife, but
He's not asked and doesn't know.
And the child bride in her nightie,
Whose assailant's still at large
Violated in her slumbers-
Mackie how much did you charge?
Having hit the heights with Louis Armstrong, it's only fair that we also recount the depths reached in the 1980s with the McDonald's TV jingle, "Mac Tonight." Selling Big Macs - how have the mighty fallen.
Got a question, Harmon Everett?
Get behind old Lucy Brown.
Oh the line forms on the right, dear
Now that Cecil's back in town.